Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Possible Way to Encourage Building Straight Comb???

Most people I've read about/corresponded with who keep top bar hives start with a package or swarm. Frequently, it seems that getting the bees to build nice straight comb presents a challenge because the bees want to build all kinds of wonky comb.

Lots of people recommend various tricks like adding a comb guide such as a line of wax, kerf, or wedge shaped bars or adding an existing bar of comb (if you have one). Others advise open releasing the queen so that the bees don't build around the queen cage.

Because this is my first year keeping bees, I don't feel qualified to offer advice. I was lucky enough to start with a nuc that had 8 bars of nice straight comb. I've had to make some minor adjustments to additional bars of comb, but I've never had crazy cross comb or anything.

However, as I did my inspection today, I noticed some vertical wires in one of the bars from the nuc. I suppose I'd never noticed this before because the bars have always been completely packed with brood until today, but that's another story.

One (and only one) bar in the original nuc was comprised of three separate pieces of wood. two thin pieces were placed side by side. Several wires ran vertically between the pieces. Another piece of wood was fastened to the top of them to hold everything together. The entire bar was exactly the same dimensions as a regular bar. I've tried to make a diagram to illustrate this, but I'm no artist, so don't judge me. ;-)

Purple lines represent the wires hanging from
between the two bottom sections of the bar. I only drew 3, but there
may have been more wires on the bar. I didn't count.
Here are some pics so that you can see the actual bar.
See the wires?

I'm holding the bar upside down here so you can see the
various sections of the bar.

Don't know if you can see the staple here. Looks like the components
 of this bar are stapled together. Maybe glued, too.
Once the bees start building straight comb, the rest is easy. Just keep putting empty bars between nice combs. But this seems like it might be a good way to get them started.

Not a Honeybee Exactly

The last few weeks, I've been kind of freaked out. This is the first July we've spent in this house, and it appears that our new house is a super magnet for Sphecius speciosus -- the eastern cicada killer wasp.

These wasps are whizzing about all over the place. I've barely been able to walk outside without bumping into one of them. And they're mating. Seriously, these guys need to get a room.

Furthermore, our yard appears to provide just the kind of digs they like -- lots of sandy soil. They're burrowing to create nests, and we see the evidence of their construction all along our driveway and around the yard.

I know that they mostly just eat nectar and sap, but they're really big -- the females are about 2 inches long -- so they freak me out a little.

Here are a couple snaps of a wasp that found a cicada. She's brought it back to her nest so that she can lay an egg in it.

 It's hard to tell from these photos, but she's actually kind of irked because while she was out hunting, we covered her burrow with a layer of compost, and she can't find it. (We didn't do it on purpose; my husband and my dad just happened to be giving the lawn a layer of compost.)

I can't believe how strong these wasps are. The one with the cicada carried it up at least 30 or 40 feet into the air. Pretty amazing. Makes me glad they're not any bigger -- they'd be unstoppable!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Interactive Pollen Chart

I love seeing the various pollen colors that come into the hive. I used to think that pollen was yellow, but I'm quickly finding out that nature displays as much variety in this area as in any other, which is to say, quite a lot.

Since June, I've seen red, orange, yellow, and tan colored pollens clinging to the bee's legs. Right now, the girls are mostly bringing in an off-white hued pollen.

Of course, I had  to start researching what they were bringing in. Wikipedia has some small charts on various pollen colors. There were a few other sources that I looked at as well, but I think my favorite one online is an interactive chart on the Sheffield Beekeeper's site.

Truthfully, I've only been able to identify a yellowish-orange pollen because I actually saw the bees gathering it. I think that the color charts don't necessarily come across quite right on a computer monitor. Or maybe, as in the case of the Sheffield Beekeeper's site, I simply have different flora in my area. I guess I'll have to order a better resource from Amazon. ("Oh, darn, I'll have to get another book," says the woman who has more books than a third-world country. LOL)

The orangish pollen comes from St. John's wort
(the bush type, not the creeping kind)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Opening the Brood Nest & Emerging Worker Bee

This post is a bit late because the day after the inspection (Thursday, July 18, 2013), I went on vacation and didn't have a good wi-fi connection.

When I inspected the last few bars of the hive on Sunday, there was a whole bar of drone brood. Since then, I've been peeking through the observation window, and I've noticed tons of new queen cups.

I've had this antsy feeling for a while, but especially since Sunday, that my girls are making swarm preparations. I know that swarming is really a good thing. It means the hive is healthy and productive, but I just got them.

It's been wicked hot (in the 90's) all week and since just opened the hive 5 days ago, I don't particularly want to go in again. On the other hand, I'm going on a short vacation this weekend, and in the event that the hive is thinking of splitting, I also don't want to come home to some queen cells. What to do? In the end, I decided to take a look around, though I waited until 6:00pm when the weather was only brutally hot instead of hellish.

Seems like the girls agree that it's hot

What I found inside was a hive that was packed to the gills with with brood. There were two bars of almost solid drone comb and lots and lots of worker brood. I saw all stages of larvae, but I didn't notice any eggs. Either I just didn't see them without my glasses and because of sweat dripping into my eyes, or maybe the queen had stopped laying because there wasn't a whole lot of space left. 

There was very little stored honey (even less capped honey), except scattered among the brood and at the top of the bars. Nearly every bar was crammed with brood. So I don't know what they've done with all the uncapped honey that was toward the front of the nest when I inspected that area about 3 weeks ago.

I don't know if I did the right thing, but I added four empty bars between a few of the drawn ones to give them some space and something to do in there. I got this idea from Michael Bush's notes on opening the brood nest. If they're feeling swarmy, hopefully, this will squash that urge a bit.

You know, I still haven't found my elusive queen. On the other hand, I had a real treat today as I got to watch a worker emerging from her cell. Wonders never cease in the beeyard.

See her little head poking through?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Are My Bees Backward?

From what I've seen of various top bar hive designs, entrances are placed in the center on one side of the hive...

or at the end of the hive.

If you have entrance holes in the center, the idea is that the bees build their nest in the center of the hive near the entrance and store honey on either side of the next. (Depicted roughly in following sketch. Imagine you're looking down at the bars.) When you inspect, you look at the honey on either side, but don't disturb the nest.
Toward the fall, the beekeeper moves the nest toward one end of the hive, and the honey at the other. (Another rough sketch below.)
While this works for a lot of people, shifting the bars seems cumbersome to me. So I chose end entrances. With end entrances, the bees are supposed to build their nest near the entrances and store honey toward the back. (shown below) During inspections, one is supposed to be able to inspect the bars with honey at the back and be able to leave the brood nest alone. Also, since the honey is at the back, if you need to give them more room, you can just shift the honey down and put an empty bar between the nest and honey.

Apparently, though, my bees did not read the book. The last time I did a full inspection, most of the honey appeared to be stored near the entrances. Today, I did another inspection, and they still don't appear to be storing honey at the back. Instead, all the new comb they built at the back is full of larvae. Lots of larvae and capped brood. 

capped brood

Today, I did just a partial inspection of the last few bars, but I'm wondering if my bees are backward. I've heard of this happening before -- the bees deciding to build their nest toward the back of the hive instead of the front. In fact, when I originally got the nuc, the drawn comb was near the back of the nuc instead of the entrance. And even though I had put the bars near my entrances, they still seem to be putting their nest in the back of the hive. 

I'm a new beek so I'm still mulling over the best approach to this issue. I'm not sure if I should just continue to add empty bars to the nest and trust they'll sort out the honey for themselves. I figure they must have built the nest that way for a reason. I just don't want to keep disturbing their brood nest. Or should I try to push all the bars to the other end of the hive (because I have entrances there that I can open up) and then turn the entire hive 180 degrees? 

Has anyone else ever had backward bees? What did you do about them?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Inspection at 9 and 16 days

Last week, I peeked through the observation glass on my hive, and I saw queen cups along the edges of two bars of comb. I had to look inside. So I opened the hive and looked at the 5 or so combs near the back of the hive. There were more queen cups -- at least 6 of them, and some toward the center of the comb.

Do you see the queen cup?

Talk about freaked out. All of a sudden, my mind started racing -- queen cups were going to turn into queen cells and then they were going to swarm and this wasn't supposed to happen until next year and I don't want to lose my bees! (deep breaths, deep breaths)

Frantically, I checked my network of beeks who assured me that queen cells were a normal part of the hive. Until I saw eggs or larvae in them, or until I saw capped queen cells, I should just pull myself together.

Curiously, I did another inspection of those bars on Tuesday. (Sooner than I would've liked, but we had thunderstorms forecast for the next week or so. It was my window of opportunity and I took it.) There were a few queen cells, but most of them seemed to be gone. Maybe the girls deconstructed them. Who knows what goes on in their little bee brains? I guess being fickle is still a woman's prerogative. ;-)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What is this Shrub?

Update: This plant has been identified as Hypericum frondosum or 'Sunburst' St. John's Wort. Thanks, HP!

I was driving down the road in my neighborhood today when I noticed a shrub that was just swarming with bees -- my bees. Fortunately, I live on a quiet street because I had to stop the car and get out to watch for awhile.

For the past week or so, I've been seeing a yellowish-orangish pollen coming into the hive. Now I know what it's from, and I want one of these bushes. The trouble is that I have no idea what it's called.

If you have any idea, please, leave me a comment. I'd love some help with this plant ID. Thanks!

Ring the Dinner Bell -- It's Feeding TIme

One of the challenges of a top bar hive is that all the feeders you see in catalogues are designed for Langstroth hives. For top bar beeks, this means adapting a design or coming up with your own.

The first week or so, I played around with a couple of designs for an in-hive feeder. They worked well enough for the bees, but they also seemed to attract a lot of ants. 

About 4 days ago, I decided to try a design I'd seen on YouTube.

Instead of a 5-gallon bucket, I used a one-gallon bucket that I happened to have on hand. Do you think the bees like it??? I put it out two days ago, and they've drained it dry.

I'm probably feeding a few other creatures as well, but not too many I think. My girls don't really leave a whole lot of space for any interlopers to slip in. I've even seen them out there partying in the middle of the night.

There are a couple of features I don't like. Because of the position of the holes, there is always some syrup that just sits on the lid and doesn't seep into the "reservoir" cups. Also, there is a little bit of waste when I first invert the bucket until the "vacuum action" starts.

On the plus side, it's super hard to drown any bees like this, and I don't see too many ants hanging about the hive any more either. Anyway, I can't complain too much about this feeder since it was completely free, made from recycled materials.

If you keep bees, is there a feeder design that you like? I'd love to hear about what you use.

Fixing Top Bars that are Too Long

My DH spent a good deal of time over the spring putting our hives together with such careful measurements. You can read about his efforts on my other blog. However, we encountered a snag during the install of the top bar nuc I'd ordered. When I originally placed the order for my nuc, I very specifically ordered 19" top bars. When I picked the nuc up, though, I found that my bars had been cut to 22" long.

Having the extra length wasn't a deal breaker because the comb still fit beautifully into my hive. The trouble came when I tried to put the roof back onto the hive. Because of the extra length, the roof didn't fit properly and actually flipped a bar over as I lowered it onto the hive. Naturally, this offended the bees, and I was immediately chastened by a well-deserved sting to the arm when I tried to fix it.

After racking our brains regarding the best way to solve this problem, I put in a "Help for the love of mercy" request to the BeeSource forum. I really love the people on that site. They tend to be very generous in sharing their knowledge and experience, and I've learned so much just from reading their responses to questions.

After reading through the responses to my query, DH and I settled on the following approach:
  1. I lined up the bars so that we would only have to cut one side of them. (Fortunately, this was possible because of how the comb was fixed to the bars.)
  2. After dark, I plugged up the entrances so that the bees couldn't fly out.
  3. In the morning, DH took a circular saw and sliced off the ends. 
  4. I opened the hive entrances.
It was that easy. The whole affair took less than a minute. No jackets or veils required. When I opened the hive up, it was as though nothing had happened. The bees were completely content through it all. 

Don't you love it when things just work out? :-)

Moving the Beek Freak Show to this New Site

I already have a blog, but I've been so excited about my new beekeeping adventure (i.e., obsessed) that I felt that I might be overwhelming the few readers I have with news about my top bar hives. Therefore, I've decide to move my bee-related posts here. That way only people as freaky over bees as I am can choose to read, and my friends can avoid my excessive musings over Apis mellifera if they so choose.

If you're interested, though, in how I came to decide on beekeeping as a hobby, you might check out my story.